The advent of the T20 format in cricket has turned the gentleman’s game into a game of the reckless adventurer. The laidback sport has assumed a new, vibrant character with young, fit, fast and fearless players. It’s a delightful format alright but it also brings with it an unwelcome baggage of worries which threatens to tarnish the image of the game beyond repair. Much of it has to do with money.
How? It has created scope for players and the establishment to earn loads of money – easy money some would say. It has also attracted hordes of shady characters into the scene. Bookies, betting and fixers were always an irritating, invisible sideshow to the game but the growing popularity of the new format across the world, in the sub-continent specifically, threatens to turn them into a menacing presence in cricket. Purists were apprehensive that the culture of money will spoil the game. The fixing allegations cropping up every now-and-then only confirms that fear.
Just the other day, a sting operation conducted by a television scandal revealed umpires were prepared to fix matches during the just concluded T20 World Cup for a consideration. We don’t know yet how deep the rot runs. Umpires were never suspect earlier. During the IPL this year, the growing presence of the fixers was evident when players told before the candid camera that they were prepared to do spot-fixing. Allegations of fixing, many unsubstantiated, have been floating around the league circuit for some time now. It’s possible that some of the owners are involved with the bookies too.
Now that there are more leagues around the world – there are three in the sub-continent already – the chances that the shady operators have spread their tentacles is even bigger. It helps them that professional agents with money on mind handle several players. There is no arguing that the betting syndicate can reach everyone. If they could reach Hansie Cronje, Ajay Jadeja, Mohammed Azharuddin and Pakistan captain Salman Butt, then players and umpires who aren't megastars are no big deal. Agents add a new dimension to that. There is little to disagree in the fact that the leagues, mostly monitored by national/local cricket boards have become more susceptible to match-fixing over the last few years.
Darell Hair, an ICC elite panel umpire, said after the fixing scandal involving umpires broke out: "There have been rumours (of fixing) since the IPL started that umpires were involved. I was wondering how long it would take before some umpire did some stupid things." he said. It shows not many close to the establishment were unaware of hanky-panky happening in IPL. But obviously no action has been taken.
The recent developments suggest that the influence of those involved in match-fixing is very high. They have the access to players and everybody concerned with game. However, what’s worrisome is most of the culprits in the fixing scandals are from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. What makes them so susceptible to illicit temptation?
Shoaib Akhtar, former Pakistan quickie, has an explanation. "Fixing happens in our culture because there's less money, there are even lesser opportunities. Cricketers victimised by their boards return (to the team) to mint money. In 2008, I had no money to even buy a car. I had to borrow money from a friend. I handled it, others go astray. I was an elite star, still after playing for 14 years I only made seven-eight crore rupees," he said.
Britain’s Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson makes a more intelligent observation, in a slightly different context though. "We know that there are enormous illegal betting syndicates in both the Indian subcontinent and across the Far East…We know that pressure is very often exerted on athletes and indeed athletes' families. It's very difficult in cultures where they don't admit that gambling takes place, so it all happens behind closed doors, in back rooms and so on and so forth, it all happens illegally. It's very, very difficult to police that." He said it for athletes in general but the logic could apply to cricket easily.
The combination of the lure of big money, the fear of a short sporting span in players and connivance of the powerful in the establishment with the betting syndicate keeps the match-fixing menace alive and healthy. Add to it the lack of a proper mechanism to monitor the off-field activities of those involved with cricket. It calls for punitive as well as corrective action.
Talking about cleaning up IPL, cricketer Aakash Chopra wrote in his column in ESPN Cricinfo : "It's common knowledge that since the advent of the IPL, there has been a spike in the number of player-agents on the circuit. They not only promise players IPL deals (taking a hefty cut for their services) but also get lucrative deals for bat-stickers etc. Some of them even lure young cricketers with gifts, in cash and kind. There is an urgent need for the IPL, in association with the franchisees, to regularise this sector, which will make the processes involved transparent."
A lot of effort needs to go into remove the gathering cloud of suspicion on cricket. The sooner the authorities woke up the better.